Blue Christmas

I don’t know off the top of my head how many funerals I have participated in that have fallen in the week before or after Christmas, but there are quite a few that I can remember. Deaths occur during all of the weeks of the year and it isn’t uncommon for there to be deaths during the holiday season. A death doesn’t have to occur during the holidays for the family to feel sad at this time of the year however. Holidays can be filled with happy memories, but when one is grieving, those memories also remind people of the loss that has occurred.

The long nights of winter in the northern hemisphere provide extra time for reflection and grief and a tradition has developed of holding services of remembrance for those who have died and honoring those who are going through grief. The tradition has not been completely consistent in Christian history. Some have felt that it provides a distraction from other Christmas celebrations. Others have felt that its association with the winter solstice links it to celebrations and observances that are not directly related to Christian traditions and history.

The reality of grief, however, is undeniable. The church’s role in walking with people in their journey of grief is important. And it is important to share worship with those who are mourning. I have written many times about the journey of grief and how grief can be one of life’s experiences that draws individuals closer to God. Just as some theologians speak about “think spaces” in reference to places where God’s presence is very evident, there are also “thin times” when the veil between the eternal and the temporal is not as thick as usual. Grief is one of those thin times. When we honestly face grief, the result can be a deepening of our our awareness of the presence of God.

And God is love. The journey of grief can be a journey of deepening love.

Yesterday I sat with a family planning the funeral of the family matriarch. One of her granddaughters said to me, “You probably do this all the time, but we’ve never done this before.” I responded that while it is true that I have officiated at a lot of funerals, I’ve never been a part of her grandmother’s funeral before. Each experience of loss is unique and there is no formula that makes it easy. Our conversations, complete with all of the questions and ideas and seemingly random thoughts and memories are essential to the process of grief. Planning a funeral never becomes routine. And that is a very good thing.

Prior to the moment of our own death, each encounter with God is one of an ever-deepening relationship. We never fully know God in this life. There is always more to learn - more to experience - more to grow.

Part of our conversation also involved the widower’s desire that the funeral service itself take place as early in the week as possible. He wanted to allow as much separation between the funeral and Christmas day as could be provided. Part of his reason was practical. He wanted people who were traveling to the funeral to be able to get home to celebrate Christmas with their families. Part of his reason was emotional. He wanted separation between the funeral and the holiday. What I couldn’t tell him is that from this time forward, there will always be an element of memory in the holiday. The memory of the funeral will become intertwined with memories of holiday events and celebrations. Our lives are like that. The tears of joy and the tears of sadness often mingle on our cheeks.

I always pay a bit of attention to the phases of the moon and the movement of the planets. I notice when events such as the solstice occur. My life isn’t dictated by these events and I place no credence in astrology or other attempts at developing belief systems around celestial events. Still, in the cold of winter it is only natural to think of longer days and the changing of seasons. Most years in this part of the world our coldest weather doesn’t come right at the solstice. The months of January and February are often colder than December. But it is cold out this morning. -8f is cold enough to get your attention. It seems even worse in Celsius: -22.

But this is South Dakota. The temperature is forecast to warm to above 20 degrees today and be above freezing by tomorrow. We live in an area where the weather changes quickly. Some of the snow that is on the ground will melt before Christmas, though we may have snow showers on Christmas day just to maintain the mood of the season.

Our moods can change as quickly as the weather. Just because we are feeling sad at the moment doesn’t mean that the next memory won’t trigger laughter. Sometimes the happy and sad memories become so intertwined that we don’t know exactly how we should feel.

All of this is to say that working with people who are experiencing grief is important work. This afternoon’s Blue Christmas service is important even if the attendance is low. I enjoy the times when the church is filled and I will put a lot of energy into the first service on Christmas Eve, which is often one of best attended services of the year. But I also find deep meaning in the more intimate times when we gather in smaller groups to worship. I suspect that the Blue Christmas service will be one of those times. Whether we are 2 or 10 or 30 or 50 isn’t the important part of the service. What is important is that we are there for the ones who need a service that acknowledges that there are sad feelings and deep grief that exist alongside the tinsel and glitter of Christmas celebrations.

There is room for all of our emotions in the holiday season and I am grateful to be a part of a church that offers different moods of worship to serve people who are at different points of their spiritual journeys.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!